Tue, Oct 07, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Conditions at Nauru camp for refugees under the spotlight


Refugees admitted to Australia after two years on the Pacific island state of Nauru were warned by an official not to speak out about conditions there, a campaigner for the refugees said yesterday.

Some of the asylum seekers from the MV Tampa, a ship laden with refugees which Australia controversially refused to allow to land in its territory in 2001, have recently been granted temporary protection visas to enter Australia.

Former immigration official Frederika Steen said they were advised not to talk to the media about conditions on Nauru, or it might affect their applications for permanent visas.

"I got it from them and also from some other people to whom they had spoken," said Steen, now with the Romero Center in Brisbane, a church group working with refugees.

"I am pretty sure it was an immigration official. Not to tell the truth is how they understood it, certainly not to tell the truth about conditions on Nauru," Steen said.

Asked about the reports she had received about conditions there, Steen compared it to a shantytown. New arrivals who have praised the set-up on Nauru were not telling the true story, she said.

"One of the visitors, who I can't name, said it was like an Aboriginal shanty town from 30 years ago. The Iraqis were living in accommodation which was sheer plastic and no walls. They were crowded in what was called a `long hut.' It was very makeshift, shanty town."

Australia has kept a tight lid on conditions on Nauru, fearing more bad publicity.

Canberra's treatment of the refugees on board the Tampa triggered an international outcry over its handling of asylum seekers, most of them from Afghanistan and Iraq. Processing the refugees on Nauru was part of Canberra's "Pacific solution," which critics have condemned as inhumane.

Of more than 400 asylum-seekers from the Tampa, several hundred are still on Nauru, among them several wives and children of men already in Australia on refugee visas. A group of 21 people, mostly from Afghanistan, were admitted early last month and more have followed.

Philip Ruddock, who as immigration minister was at the center of the Tampa row, was last week replaced by another hardliner, Amanda Vanstone. A spokesman for Vanstone said he was not aware of any such advice to refugees.

"I have no knowledge of them being told that sort of thing. Given that a number of them have done interviews with immigration people standing around I find the claims hard to believe," the spokesman said.

Whether or not refugees spoke out would not affect their applications, the spokesman said.

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